It is getting to be traditional, now, in Anglo-Welsh culture such as that I belong to, to bemoan the state of education in Wales because “standards” are not “high enough”. The press, doing what the press loves to do, points fingers, garbles messages and misquotes its interviewees on this subject, and plays its elegant part in making Welsh people generally unhappy with the state of their education and envious of developments “over the bridge”.
I have thought about this for a long time, because having taught in both countries, there are clearly strengths in Welsh education that need transferring to England, not least the structure of the phases of early years and primary education.
But as is the way in English education, you can never persuade anyone to learn anything from anyone unless their school is “outstanding”. And so the relative perceived weakness in Welsh education standards militates against English education looking at what is happening in Wales and trying to learn from it. And then there is the real issue of funding disparity. For all the great advances in Welsh education and the development of a modern but accultured curriculum, there is often simply not the money to put it into place or to tackle some of the divisive social issues left behind from the death of heavy industry 40-50 years ago and the failure to develop an identifiably Welsh economy in its place.
Teaching in Wales was a joy to me, and I remember the shock of coming to my first English school and finding it quite unimaginative and narrow in its approach. I thought it was the school, to start with, and only slowly did I begin to realise that it was the disassociation of education from a culture that mattered. In Wales, the culture matters. It informs teaching, the curriculum, and the way you think about the lives of the children you teach. They are growing up in a culture. That may be narrow, even narrow-minded. It may be backwards looking, obsessed with the past, obsessed with the local and with the communal. All of these things are very un-English, but are vital to making sense of the life of Wales in education.
In this country, by contrast, every day there is some re-opened debate (more strident now that the right are in the political ascendancy) about “being English”. It is like teaching from a place where only the future matters, where “what we will be” and “what we will be able to do” drives education, and a sense of place, of belonging, of community, is not acknowledged at all. There is hardly any “local curriculum” in England at all, although skilled teachers will have made the local realities of where children live part of their learning.
In Wales, the whole thing is local, whether you like it or not (and many don’t). The language, the landscape and the history are all one multi-layered aspect of the “Curriculum Cymreig” which was the bedrock of everything else you did. it was always there, in the background, reminding you not to stray too far from the local, from the relevant, from the immediate, which linked you to your family history and a growing sense of self as being “of Wales” even if you weren’t Welsh.
Today, Leighton Andrews, the education minister for Wales, has ordered a review of the Welsh Curriculum, and I just hope that in the rush to help education assist Wales in being a more modern nation, they do not forget the past, the roots that nourish what is distinctive and potentially wonderful about Welsh education, the Welsh economy, Welsh life and Welsh language.
It is a good time to review – and it would be fascinating to see what happens as a result, and even more interesting, whether it provides the kind of challenge to an English curricular review that it so badly needs. There will be little of value coming from Mr Gove in this area (after all, anyone who believes the E-Bacc is the way forward has some way to travel), but if his recent backing of the work of E.D. Hirsch means anything, then a true cultural literacy may find its way into English education too.
In the meantime, we have the Cambridge Primary Review, whose importance will grow with coming months as more and more schools look hard again at their curriculum and what they want for children.